Cholesterol -What Is It?

Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance that is present in all parts of the body and performs an essential function in maintaining health. Problems arise when there are excessive levels of cholesterol in the blood which is deposited on the walls of the arteries. This causes plaque which restricts the flow of blood and leads to a condition called atherosclerosis or "hardening of the arteries".

When there is a build-up of plaque in the blood vessels serving the heart, known as the coronary arteries, the blood flow is restricted which can cause chest pain or angina. Plaque is also responsible for blood clots which block the flow of blood through the artery and cause a heart attack.

The fatty cholesterol does not mix with the blood but is carried through the bloodstream by lipoproteins. Two main kinds of lipoproteins carry cholesterol in the blood:

 Low density lipoprotein, or LDL, which also is called the "bad" cholesterol because it carries cholesterol to tissues, including the arteries.

 High density lipoprotein, or HDL, which also is called the "good" cholesterol because it takes cholesterol from tissues to the liver, which removes it from the body. 

Unfortunately most of the cholesterol in the blood is the LDL form. The higher the level of LDL cholesterol in the blood, the greater your risk for heart disease.

There are a number of factors that can cause unhealthy cholesterol levels, most of which of which can be controlled by changes in lifestyle. Two over which you have no control are:

Heredity. High blood cholesterol can run in families. However, very few people are stuck with a high cholesterol just by heredity and everyone can take action to lower their cholesterol.

Age and sex. Blood cholesterol begins to rise around age 20 and continues to go up until about age 60 or 65.

The other factors which you can control are:

Diet. Saturated fat and cholesterol which are both found in animal products. Of the two, saturated fat is the one that raises your LDL cholesterol level more than anything else in your diet.

Weight. If you are overweight this tends to increase your LDL level. Losing the extra pounds may help lower your LDL while raising your HDL.

Lack of Exercise. Being physically inactive contributes to overweight and can raise LDL and lower HDL. Regular physical activity can raise HDL and can help you lose weight and, in that way, help lower your LDL.

Since a high cholesterol can indicate a high risk of heart disease it is important to know your cholesterol level. It is recommended that all adults age 20 and older should have their cholesterol levels checked at least once every 5 years. Consult your doctor to find out how often is best for you.